Coronavirus is a “Disease of Civilization”

Editor’s note: This article, first published at Marx21, dives into the origin and epidemiology of the CoViD-19 virus with a socialist biologist. While it does not represent an official Deep Green Resistance perspective, it does include valuable factual information—including the essential analysis that CoViD is a “disease of civilization.” For further reading on this topic, see “Civilization Makes Us Sick” and “The Ecology of Disease.” Republished with permission.

The coronavirus is keeping the world in a state of shock. But instead of fighting the structural causes of the pandemic, the government is focusing on emergency measures. A talk with Rob Wallace (Evolutionary Biologist) about the dangers of CoViD-19, the responsibility of agribusiness and sustainable solutions to combat infectious diseases.

Rob Wallace is an evolutionary biologist and phylogeographer for public health in the USA. He has been working for twenty-five years on various aspects of new pandemics and is the author of the book “Big Farms Make Big Flu”.

How dangerous is the new coronavirus?

Rob Wallace: It depends on where you are in the timing of your local outbreak of Covid-19: early, peak level, late? How good is your region’s public health response? What are your demographics? How old are you? Are you immunologically compromised? What is your underlying health? To ask an undiagnosable possibility, do your immuogenetics, the genetics underlying your immune response, line up with the virus or not?

So all this fuss about the virus is just scare tactics?

No, certainly not. At the population level, Covid-19 was clocking in at between 2 and 4% case fatality ratio or CFR at the start of the outbreak in Wuhan. Outside Wuhan, the CFR appears to drop off to more like 1% and even less, but also appears to spike in spots here and there, including in places in Italy and the United States.. Its range doesn’t seem much in comparison to, say, SARS at 10%, the influenza of1918 5-20%, »avian influenza« H5N1 60%, or at some points Ebola 90%. But it certainly exceeds seasonal influenza’s 0.1% CFR. The danger isn’t just a matter of the death rate, however. We have to grapple with what’s called penetrance or community attack rate: how much of the global population is penetrated by the outbreak.

Can you be more specific?

The global travel network is at record connectivity. With no vaccines or specific antivirals for coronaviruses, nor at this point any herd immunity to the virus, even a strain at only 1% mortality can present a considerable danger. With an incubation period of up to two weeks and increasing evidence of some transmission before sickness–before we know people are infected–few places would likely be free of infection. If, say, Covid-19 registers 1% fatality in the course of infecting four billion people, that’s 40 million dead. A small proportion of a large number can still be a large number.

These are frightening numbers for an ostensibly less than virulent pathogen…

Definitely and we are only at the beginning of the outbreak. It’s important to understand that many new infections change over the course of epidemics. Infectivity, virulence, or both may attenuate. On the other hand, other outbreaks ramp up in virulence. The first wave of the influenza pandemic in the spring of 1918 was a relatively mild infection. It was the second and third waves that winter and into 1919 that killed millions.

But pandemic skeptics argue that far fewer patients have been infected and killed by the coronavirus than by the typical seasonal flu. What do you think about that?

I would be the first to celebrate if this outbreak proves a dud. But these efforts to dismiss Covid-19 as a possible danger by citing other deadly diseases, especially influenza, is a rhetorical device to spin concern about the coronavirus as badly placed.

So the comparison with seasonal flu is limping …

It makes little sense to compare two pathogens on different parts of their epicurves. Yes, seasonal influenza infects many millions worldwide each other, killing, by WHO estimates, up to 650,000 people a year. Covid-19, however, is only starting its epidemiological journey. And unlike influenza, we have neither vaccine, nor herd immunity to slow infection and protect the most vulnerable populations.

Even if the comparison is misleading, both diseases belong to viruses, even to a specific group, the RNA viruses. Both can cause disease. Both affect the mouth and throat area and sometimes also the lungs. Both are quite contagious.

Those are superficial similarities that miss a critical part in comparing two pathogens. We know a lot about influenza’s dynamics. We know very little about Covid-19’s. They’re steeped in unknowns. Indeed, there is much about Covid-19 that is even unknowable until the outbreak plays out fully. At the same time, it is important to understand that it isn’t a matter of Covid-19 versus influenza. It’s Covid-19 and influenza. The emergence of multiple infections capable of going pandemic, attacking populations in combos, should be the front and center worry.

You have been researching epidemics and their causes for several years. In your book »Big Farms Make Big Flu« you attempt to draw these connections between industrial farming practices, organic farming and viral epidemiology. What are your insights?

The real danger of each new outbreak is the failure –or better put—the expedient refusal to grasp that each new Covid-19 is no isolated incident. The increased occurrence of viruses is closely linked to food production and the profitability of multinational corporations. Anyone who aims to understand why viruses are becoming more dangerous must investigate the industrial model of agriculture and, more specifically, livestock production. At present, few governments, and few scientists, are prepared to do so. Quite the contrary.

When the new outbreaks spring up, governments, the media, and even most of the medical establishment are so focused on each separate emergency that they dismiss the structural causes that are driving multiple marginalized pathogens into sudden global celebrity, one after the other.

Who is to blame?

I said industrial agriculture, but there’s a larger scope to it. Capital is spearheading land grabs into the last of primary forest and smallholder-held farmland worldwide. These investments drive the deforestation and development leading to disease emergence. The functional diversity and complexity these huge tracts of land represent are being streamlined in such a way that previously boxed-in pathogens are spilling over into local livestock and human communities. In short, capital centers, places such as London, New York, and Hong Kong, should be considered our primary disease hotspots.

For which diseases is this the case?

There are no capital-free pathogens at this point. Even the most remote are affected, if distally. Ebola, Zika, the coronaviruses, yellow fever again, a variety of avian influenzas, and African swine fever in hog are among the many pathogens making their way out of the most remote hinterlands into peri-urban loops, regional capitals, and ultimately onto the global travel network. From fruit bats in the Congo to killing Miami sunbathers in a few weeks‘ time.

What is the role of multinational companies in this process?

Planet Earth is largely Planet Farm at this point, in both biomass and land used. Agribusiness is aiming to corner the food market. The near-entirety of the neoliberal project is organized around supporting efforts by companies based in the in the more advanced industrialised countries to steal the land and resources of weaker countries. As a result, many of those new pathogens previously held in check by long-evolved forest ecologies are being sprung free, threatening the whole world.

What effects do the production methods of agribusinesses have on this?

The capital-led agriculture that replaces more natural ecologies offers the exact means by which pathogens can evolve the most virulent and infectious phenotypes. You couldn’t design a better system to breed deadly diseases.

How so?

Growing genetic monocultures of domestic animals removes whatever immune firebreaks may be available to slow down transmission. Larger population sizes and densities facilitate greater rates of transmission. Such crowded conditions depress immune response. High throughput, a part of any industrial production, provides a continually renewed supply of susceptibles, the fuel for the evolution of virulence. In other words, agribusiness is so focused on profits that selecting for a virus that might kill a billion people is treated as a worthy risk.

What!?

These companies can just externalize the costs of their epidemiologically dangerous operations on everyone else. From the animals themselves to consumers, farmworkers, local environments, and governments across jurisdictions. The damages are so extensive that if we were to return those costs onto company balance sheets, agribusiness as we know it would be ended forever. No company could support the costs of the damage it imposes.

In many media it is claimed that the starting point of the coronavirus was an »exotic food market« in Wuhan. Is this description true?

Yes and no. There are spatial clues in favor of the notion. Contact tracing linked infections back to the Hunan Wholesale Sea Food Market in Wuhan, where wild animals were sold. Environmental sampling does appear to pinpoint the west end of the market where wild animals were held.

But how far back and how widely should we investigate? When exactly did the emergency really begin? The focus on the market misses the origins of wild agriculture out in the hinterlands and its increasing capitalization. Globally, and in China, wild food is becoming more formalized as an economic sector. But its relationship with industrial agriculture extends beyond merely sharing the same moneybags. As industrial production–hog, poultry, and the like–expand into primary forest, it places pressure on wild food operators to dredge further into the forest for source populations, increasing the interface with, and spillover of, new pathogens, including Covid-19.

Covid-19 is not the first virus to develop in China that the government tried to cover it up.

Yes, but this is no Chinese exceptionalism, however. The U.S. and Europe have served as ground zeros for new influenzas as well, recently H5N2 and H5Nx, and their multinationals and neocolonial proxies drove the emergence of Ebola in West Africa and Zika in Brazil. U.S. public health officials covered for agribusiness during the H1N1 (2009) and H5N2 outbreaks.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has now declared a »health emergency of international concern«. Is this step correct?

Yes. The danger of such a pathogen is that health authorities do not have a handle on the statistical risk distribution. We have no idea how the pathogen may respond. We went from an outbreak in a market to infections splattered across the world in a matter of weeks. The pathogen could just burn out. That would be great. But we don’t know. Better preparation would better the odds of undercutting the pathogen’s escape velocity.

The WHO’s declaration is also part of what I call pandemic theater. International organizations have died in the face of inaction. The League of Nations comes to mind. The UN group of organizations is always worried about its relevance, power, and funding. But such actionism can also converge on the actual preparation and prevention the world needs to disrupt Covid-19’s chains of transmission.

The neoliberal restructuring of the health care system has worsened both the research and the general care of patients, for example in hospitals. What difference could a better funded healthcare system make to fight the virus?

There’s the terrible but telling story of the Miami medical device company employee who upon returning from China with flu-like symptoms did the righteous thing by his family and community and demanded a local hospital test him for Covid-19. He worried that his minimal Obamacare option wouldn’t cover the tests. He was right. He was suddenly on the hook for US$3270. An American demand might be an emergency order be passed that stipulates that during a pandemic outbreak, all outstanding medical bills related to testing for infection and for treatment following a positive test would be paid for by the federal government. We want to encourage people to seek help, after all, rather than hide away—and infect others—because they can’t afford treatment. The obvious solution is a national health service—fully staffed and equipped to handle such community-wide emergencies—so that such a ridiculous problem as discouraging community cooperation would never arise.

As soon as the virus is discovered in one country, governments everywhere react with authoritarian and punitive measures, such as a compulsory quarantine of entire areas of land and cities. Are such drastic measures justified?

Using an outbreak to beta-test the latest in autocratic control post-outbreak is disaster capitalism gone off the rails. In terms of public health, I would err on the side of trust and compassion, which are important epidemiological variables. Without either, jurisdictions lose their populations‘ support. A sense of solidarity and common respect is a critical part of eliciting the cooperation we need to survive such threats together. Self-quarantines with the proper support–check-ins by trained neighborhood brigades, food supply trucks going door-to-door, work release and unemployment insurance–can elicit that kind of cooperation, that we are all in this together.

As you may know, in Germany with the AfD we have a de facto Nazi party with 94 seats in parliament. The hard Nazi Right and other groups in association with AfD politicians use the Corona-Crisis for their agitation. They spread (false) reports about the virus and demand more authoritarian measures from the government: Restrict flights and entry stops for migrants, border closures and forced quarantine …

Travel bans and border closures are demands with which the radical right wants to to racialize what are now global diseases. This is, of course, nonsense. At this point, given the virus is already on its way to spreading everywhere, the sensible thing to do is to work on developing the kind of public health resilience in which it doesn’t matter who shows up with an infection, we have the means to treat and cure them. Of course, stop stealing people’s land abroad and driving the exoduses in the first place, and we can keep the pathogens from emerging in the first place.

What would be sustainable changes?

In order to reduce the emergence of new virus outbreaks, food production has to change radically. Farmer autonomy and a strong public sector can curb environmental ratchets and runaway infections. Introduce varieties of stock and crops—and strategic rewilding—at both the farm and regional levels. Permit food animals to reproduce on-site to pass on tested immunities. Connect just production with just circulation. Subsidize price supports and consumer purchasing programs supporting agroecological production. Defend these experiments from both the compulsions that neoliberal economics impose upon individuals and communities alike and the threat of capital-led State repression.

What should socialists call for in the face of the increasing dynamics of disease outbreaks?

Agribusiness as a mode of social reproduction must be ended for good if only as a matter of public health. Highly capitalized production of food depends on practices that endanger the entirety of humanity, in this case helping unleash a new deadly pandemic. We should demand food systems be socialized in such a way that pathogens this dangerous are kept from emerging in the first place. That will require reintegrating food production into the needs of rural communities first. That will require agroecological practices that protect the environment and farmers as they grow our food. Big picture, we must heal the metabolic rifts separating our ecologies from our economies. In short, we have a planet to win.

Thank you very much for the interview.

(The questions were asked by Yaak Pabst.)

12 thoughts on “Coronavirus is a “Disease of Civilization””

  1. While I agree with everything in this interview, it’s what was not asked or answered that’s the problem. It’s not just overpopulation, animal agriculture, and deforestation that are the causes of these pandemics, it’s equally the massive industrial travel. It took way too long for airlines to start reducing commercial flights; they should have all been grounded immediately, with the lone exception of people returning home who test negative for the virus. But just like with global warming/climate change, people don’t want to stop their harmful behaviors, so hey, don’t talk about all this needless travel. And BTW, most airline travel is done by business travelers, the most needless travel there is!

  2. It should be noted that Covid-19’s CFR tends to drop significantly the more tests are carried. In South Korea, where ca. 140,000 people were tested, CFR dropped to ca. 0.6% – still higher than the common flu, indeed, but not *as* higher as it seems. This is because milder cases are computed more often when more people are tested.

    https://www.businessinsider.de/international/south-korea-coronavirus-testing-death-rate-2020-3/?r=US&IR=T#click=https://t.co/zdbnTTF0j8

  3. As usual, not a word in the text about overpopulation, apart from a vague reference to “growth.” But those agricultural forays into what was previously virgin forest are done to feed more people — and by no means are they all done by agribusiness.

    I’ll never forget recent news footage of an individual farmer, illegally felling another patch of forest to plant another field in Madagascar –an island once covered with forests full of irreplacable and innocent wildlife, now reduced to a thin band along the country’s east coast. Asked why he was destroying the forest, the farmer blamed bad economic practices by the government — though it was impossible not to notice his 5 children, standing just behind him.

    I know of ONE place in the entire, baby-crazed 3rd World where effective steps have been taken to stop mindless reproduction. One of India’s many states has made a two-child policy official, and it has done so without forced abortions, sterilizations, or even fines. They have simply made the parents of 3 or more children ineligible for government jobs or loans. And voila! Population growth has ended.

    Until politicians and the media stop regarding family size as a sacred cow, above criticism, the world doesn’t have a chance of survival. The number of your or my babies ceased to be an individual right when overpopulation began to impinge on the rights of others (human and non-human) to things like clean air, water, food, and living space. And that was a long, long time ago.

    1. “Baby-crazed third world” is an implicitly racist phrase. Poor nations are not “baby crazed.” No one should use the real problem of overpopulation to justify racism. We must engage with the complexities of these issues rather than oversimplify them based on untrue, racist stereotypes.

      From a Derrick Jensen interview:
      “Humans have already overshot the carrying capacity of the planet. We overshot the carrying capacity of the planet a long time ago. And before all you human supremacists and Communists start yelling at me, yes, overpopulation is a thing. But that doesn’t alter the fact that when we talk about overpopulation, we really also have to talk about overconsumption.

      We’re going to break this down a little bit. First off, carrying capacity is the number of beings of a certain species who can live in a certain place forever without harming the land base. So, you can have an island that has a carrying capacity of a thousand deer, and you could have eight hundred deer live there forever without harming the place. You can temporarily exceed carrying capacity; that’s called overshoot. An overshoot leads to something called drawdown, which is where you harm the land base. So, if you have this island that can hold a thousand deer forever, you have eight hundred deer and that’s fine, and then, suddenly, the predator population collapses, people come in and shoot all the mountain lions, then the deer population can explode and go to two to three thousand. And the fact that it’s increasing from two to three thousand doesn’t mean it can keep increasing forever. What’s happening is that it’s increasing at the expense of the vegetation, which is the long-term source of food for the deer.

      And so, when you exceed carrying capacity, you cause drawdown, which means you permanently reduce the land’s capacity to carry you. So, you can shoot up to two thousand deer, but as you’re doing that, you’re moving the permanent carrying capacity from a thousand down to nine hundred, down to eight hundred, down to seven hundred. So, when there is a collapse, the collapse will be that much worse. So that’s step one. Step two is that humans using a lot of technology changes the equation a little bit in that it makes it so that we are better able to exceed the local carrying capacity, which means destroying the land base. And those of us who are more highly technologized destroy the land base even more. So, it’s really a little equation. The harm to the planet, or the harm to the carrying capacity, is your population times your technological capacity to destroy the land, which is . . .

      We can talk about how plows are useful for agriculture, but really, what that’s talking about is the technological capacity. The plow is a piece of technology designed to destroy the land base by converting it into solely human use. And that will work for a while, but it doesn’t increase carrying capacity. It allows you to temporarily exceed carrying capacity, and it makes the crash, when it comes, that much worse. So, yes, there are more humans on the planet than the planet can support. And, yes, humans from industrialized nations cause more harm than humans from non-industrialized nations. Both of those are true. So, you can drop that bullshit dichotomy of saying that because we acknowledge there are more humans on the planet than the planet can support, then that means that you hate poor people. That’s just a cheap attempt to avoid looking at the real issues, frankly, because the truth is we have exceeded the carrying capacity.

      All my work is based on one simple notion, which is that this way of living cannot go on forever, and when it crashes, I would prefer that the world be in better shape rather than worse. That’s it. And so, broadly speaking, what impact do I see this population surge having on human life as we know it today? What I do know is that on every level, almost everyone in this culture is in complete denial about the state of the health of the planet, and in fact, most people don’t care about the health of the planet. And so, they will continue to . . . Depends on whether you want to blame numbers of one sort or blame numbers of another sort. They will continue to increasingly technologize the planet and they will increasingly continue to have babies, because we are not as smart as worms. Worms, when you limit their food supply, they limit the number of babies they have. I cannot say the same for us.

      So, what impact do I see population and technology surge having on human life as we know it today? Well, I’m going to drop off the word human, because we’re the ones causing it. What I see is that, in the last fifty years, wildlife populations have come down by fifty percent. And I just read a couple of days ago that freshwater megafauna have gone down by something like eighty percent in the last twenty or thirty years. And that’s all just going to continue. The Earth will continue to be destroyed. This is what happens when you are in overshoot. And every cell in my body wants for us to have a voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living where . . . Right now, more than half of the children in the world are not actively wanted. So, give women absolute reproductive freedom, we’ve got overpopulation solved in a heartbeat. Well, not in a heartbeat, in twenty to thirty years. But that can’t happen, first, because of Abrahamic religions where men control women’s bodies. Second, that also can’t happen because capitalism requires ever-increasing markets.

      So we have to defeat both Abrahamic religions and the economic incentives for growth. What impacts do I think this will have? It will continue to increasingly kill the planet until the planet can no longer support . . . The planet’s dismantling process by this culture causes it to collapse this culture. And I’ve used this metaphor before, but it’s just so apt: When I was a kid, my mom asked me to clean my room and I said no, and she asked me clean my room and I didn’t do it, and she asked me to clean my room and I didn’t do it. And finally, she said to me, “Okay, fine. If your room isn’t clean by dinner time, I’m going to clean it, and you’re not going to like it because I’m throwing everything away.” And it’s the same with the natural world. We can solve this problem. We could stop inventing gadgets that destroy the planet, and we could voluntarily have fewer children, or we can let the world take care of it.

      There’s one more thing I want to say about that. When this culture crashes, the very, very poor on the planet are not going to be the ones worst affected. And the reason I say that is because fifteen years ago, I asked Anuradha Mittal, former director of Food First if the people of India would be better off if the global economy disappeared tomorrow, and she laughed and said of course, because there are former granaries of India that now export dog food and tulips to Europe. And I mentioned before that my mom liked to travel a lot, and she went to Africa and she was appalled at the huge lima bean farms that were going in to export lima beans to Europe in Africa. And if you take away those transnational corporations’ ability to steal land for the wealthy, then a lot of the very poor will go back to how they were surviving for ten thousand years, which is through subsistence farming. So what impact do I see that population surge having on human life as we know it today? Oh, think about any dystopian film, Blade Runner or anything like that. People will get crazier, too. I’ve talked before about how John Livingston would talk about how humans are not particularly violent, in that he said if you pack rats in as tight as humans are in big cities, for comparative size or if you pack any other mammal in that tightly, there would be blood flowing in the streets every night. We’re not meant to live like that. So I also see a lot more craziness, a lot more manifesting all through the culture in every way, including through its epistemologies, its sociologies, its philosophies. People will go increasingly nuts. It will be manifested through its art, which will be increasingly . . . crap. There’s a line from Joanne Rand on what it’ll be like. She’s talking about after civilization crashes, but I think it’s what civilization will be like as it goes forward. “People flopping around like rats in a flood, feeding on the other guy’s guts and blood.” I don’t see anything good in that future.

  4. @Mark E Behrend
    Agriculture caused overpopulation by eliminating the natural population control of food availability. Overpopulation didn’t cause agriculture, though it now may be an evil loop as you describe.

  5. I fully agree with everything Derrick said in the interview except for this: “Right now, more than half of the children in the world are not actively wanted. So, give women absolute reproductive freedom, we’ve got overpopulation solved in a heartbeat. Well, not in a heartbeat, in twenty to thirty years.”

    Before agriculture, which eventually resulted in the civilization that everyone here supposedly opposes, there were 10 million people ON THE ENTIRE PLANET. That is the natural carrying capacity of Earth for humans, and that only if you agree that humans should be everywhere but Antarctica. So there are almost 800 TIMES too many people on Earth. We’re not fixing that in 20-30 years, not even 200-300 years. I can’t do the math, but it will take a lot longer to lower human population to a level where it’s in proper ecological balance with the Earth and its ecosystems. Even a very strong global one-child-family policy that resulted in a birthrate below 1 (about 20% of humans don’t have kids) would take a very long time to lower human population substantially, because the population doesn’t start decreasing until the old people die off from old age.

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